The sound sent a chill down my spine, and I froze. Did it echo around the valley or was that just my adrenaline-riddled imagination? I became conscious of the trout hanging from my belt and the blood dripping down my leg.
We were backpacking in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness area, and had camped about halfway up the mountain. After setting up camp, we followed the valley up to the ridge line and explored several lakes. In one, we had great success fishing and, dinner assured, decided to leave the stringer of fish in the water and pick it up on the way back down.
We followed what seemed to be a marked trail that petered out in the adjacent valley. After studying the map together, we realized that we had climbed up to the ridge-top, then back down to nearly the same elevation as our camp, but one valley over. Rather than following the trail up to the top and back down, we decided to cut our own trail into the next valley.
It got harder as we went, and climbing over and under the deadfall made it particularly tough on my brother’s bad knee. As the sun began to drop, we finally made it to the creek draining the lake where we caught the fish. My brother went on to our campsite to light a big fire so I could see the camp from the trail down, and I took off following the creek upstream to retrieve the fish for dinner.
Even in summer it begins to chill once the sun drops, and I was sweating from the exertion, then getting cold when I stopped to breathe. My long sleeved shirt was back at camp, of course. Fighting the rocks, brush and deadfall, I finally reached the lake and circled against the cliff side to where we had tied up the stringer. As expected, the trout were still there and I tied the stringer to my belt.
I continued to circle the lake to the other side where the trail led down the valley. It was very dusky now, but the trail was plainly visible and I knew that all I had to do was follow it downhill until I saw our campfire. Sitting to rest before starting down, I noticed that, aside from the fishy smell, one of the fish had bled down my leg. That would need to be washed off before I got into my sleeping bag.
I was starting to get hungry, I was low on treated water, and I was tired. It was time to move before I became too stiff or too cold.
Then, out of the nearby dusk came a shattering, mournful howl, that echoed around the valley. I froze, listening intently, but there was only silence. I did a quick inventory and unsheathed my four-inch Buck knife. Searching the ground, I found a big stick, heavy enough to be sturdy, but light and short enough to wield in one hand.
I tried to work out a strategy. I could build a fire and make a torch, but that would take a lot of time and make a lot of noise. If I kept walking quietly, I might make camp without being noticed. Of course, I soon realized that the bleeding fish would leave a clear trail that any predator could follow. I could leave the fish where I was, but by now my leg was slimy and bloody from the fish. The predator would smell me before it got to where I left the fish. I couldn’t tell where the howl came from, so it could be anywhere.
Okay, I would start down the trail and if followed or attacked, drop the fish, which would hopefully distract the predator. I retied the stringer on my belt in a quick-release knot. Gripping my knife and the stick, I moved quietly down the trail.
I heard noises off to one side in the trees. Walking more carefully and tightly gripping my weapons for reassurance, I stepped around a house-sized rock. Suddenly, the trees erupted in the most horrendous sound, loud, unreal … terrifying. My hair stood on end, and I got ready for anything.
Only fifty feet away in the trees, something moved. A bull elk raised his head and bugled again. Eerie, mournful, and piercing, it was no longer terrifying, but now known, beautiful and intriguing. Slowly, my heart rate lowered and I started breathing again. Sheepishly, I sheathed my knife and tossed the stick aside.
I continued down the trail quietly without disturbing the hopeful suitor. The campfire was a welcome sight as I approached, bringing not only dinner, but a good story to tell.